Rewinding back a little over a year to Baselworld 2017, there were really just a handful of watches that grabbed my attention and the Zenith Defy El Primero 21 (Hands-on here) led the pack. In fact, it was among my favorite watches from last year. It checked all the right boxes. Fun to look at? Check. Functional chronograph? Check. Modern movement? Check. Reasonably affordable? Check. When I got the opportunity to review the titanium model, I jumped. For the most part, it lived up to the hype I had for it.
With the crown on the left provides the watch historic accuracy and an unusual appearance to boot, but does it offer any practical benefits? One benefit is clear: assuming you’re wearing the watch on your left hand, the crown will not dig in the back of your hand when you bend your wrist harshly, to perform a couple of push-ups, for instance. Unfortunately, the disadvantages outweigh this also. To begin with, a right-handed wearer should take the watch off before he can wind or set it because he’ll find it awkward or impossible to operate the crown with his right hand. Second, after he takes the watch off, he will have to perform the winding or setting with his left hand, and not every right-handed wearer will find this simple. Third, the instructions for setting and twisting are reversed, i.e., you do not just have to use the “wrong” hand, you also need to move your fingers in the contrary direction to the one which you’re used to.The situation has many chamfers and edges, and precise boundaries between polished and satin-finished surfaces. The watch has yet another operation-related problem: the stop-start chronograph button is too easy to push. A smoothly running button is generally a desirable feature, but the one on our test watch yielded to stress so easily that contact with the closely fitting sleeve of the wearer’s coat was enough to stop the chronograph prematurely. These shortcomings are balanced out by several virtues. The crown is big and easy to grasp; the chronograph pushers will also be big enough to operate easily; and also the motion has a stop-seconds function and, for the current screen, a rapid-reset mechanism. The grip, made of stainless steel, is hardy, well-crafted and user-friendly. You open it by pushing two big buttons. It snaps firmly shut afterwards. The strap could be extended — continuously, not by increments — via a clamping mechanism which holds the strap firmly in the selected position.
Before we delve into the watch, let’s discuss a bit of the history behind Zenith, the context of the Defy model, and why this watch was exciting (for me at least). Introduced in 1969, the El Primero was arguably the first fully integrated automatic chronograph. Followed shortly after came the Zenith Defy, a watch that was definitely a step out of normality for a brand. It was a very cool 3-hander (look familiar?) with a date window at 4:30 that I’ve come to find isn’t as easy to obtain as one would think. The Defy models have progressed, a few residual models were released, but nothing has been as interesting as the original design.
For me, it held a certain charm that I found appealing even almost 50 years later, and the “first mechanical chronograph” charm of the regular El Primero rode itself out for me. When Zenith announced that they were debuting a re-vamped El Primero Defy with a new movement, a new look, and a new attitude, I got excited even though the new Defy was a total step out from the original design (which later came without the unique case shape at Baselworld 2018 with the Defy Classic). The Defy El Primero 21 marries the best features of the original El Primero, with the other-worldly design DNA of the classic Defy models.
One thing I need to give credit for on the Zenith Defy El Primero 21 is that the watch simply looks and feels modern, if not futuristic. LVMH has long been weaving common DNA threads throughout three of their pillar brands. Hublot, Tag Heuer, and now Zenith have all re-done and released skeletonized chronographs in the last couple years. While they are all fitting into vastly differing price points, the designs do all feature a common design language. While I can agree that Jean-Claude Biver’s influence is definitely all over the LVMH brands, I think that the look and feel of the new Defy El Primero 21 fits a landscape that’s appealing to collectors who tend to sometimes overlook Zenith, with myself included.
The brushed titanium case with polished edges measures in at 44mm x 14.5mm but wears a bit smaller. It sits nicely on the wrist with sharply tapered lugs that don’t make this watch feel as big as it is. One feature I honestly didn’t expect to like as much as I did, is the crown together with the oversized chronograph pushers. When I first saw the press release I thought the pushers looked twice as big as they should be, but after wearing the watch for a while, I realized how practical they were for daily use. While I think a lot of enthusiasts would admit to rarely or never using a chronograph, I found myself using it every chance I got if not for the sheer “cool” factor of hearing the sexy “bbbrrrzzzzzzzzzz” sound on every engagement. The oversized pushers made it much easier to activate without contorting your wrist into awkward positions – especially for me, since I wear my watches on my right wrist. The only issue I had with the extended pushers was that they were long enough that I once accidentally activated the chronograph while opening my car door.
The movement inside the Zenith Defy El Primero 21 is very cool looking when you turn the case around. Since the El Primero 21 is the watch that is introducing the all-new (not the Carrera Mikrograph movement as was originally rumored) El Primero Calibre 9004, the function had to fit the contemporary look of the watch. Zenith has always been proficient and known for their 5Hz high-beat calibers and this watch pushes some envelopes both in design and function. Let’s start with the new “Carbon-Matrix Carbon Nanotube” used for the balance wheel, which immediately brings to mind images of green text floating down an old computer monitor, but not as visually inspiring.
The Calibre 9004 utilizes two separate-but-integrated regulation systems – one for the normal time-telling functions, and one for the chronograph function. The 5Hz (36,000 bph) movement utilizes a chronograph that operates at a whopping 50Hz (360,000 bph). This allows for 1/100th of a second timing in a mechanical wristwatch – something only a handful of brands offer, and even less are (relatively) affordable. When you engage the chronograph, you can hear it spin up, and the seconds hand makes a full revolution of the dial every second. Seconds are then counted at the 6 o’clock sub-register, while minutes are counted at 3 o’clock. Because of the amount of energy and effort put into the chronograph, it can only run for 50 minutes at a time, while the watch itself carries a 50-hour power reserve. You can easily tell when you’ve reached that point because there is a power reserve indicator at 12 o’ clock. The entire mechanism makes for a stimulating show of technical prowess.